Finally: Good Coffee in New York City

In a world-class city like New York, I’ve always been shocked that a proper coffee, whether it be straight-up cup, a cappuccino or espresso, is in such short order, especially given NY’s Italian influence. From that Italian perspective, coffee is as crucial to daily life as wine. One would not dream of serving Folgers or Sanka (!?), which even local friends have told me they’ve seen being used in fancy espresso machines at fine dining NY restaurants… for $6 a cup. For shame.

RBC’s Cappuccino

My hunt in years past was essentially a fruitless effort. When dining at Mario Batali restaurants like Lupa, I’d ask what kind of coffee they used after being burned so many times, and they actually were offended. I’m not quibbling as to why quality coffee is not the general standard here as it is on the West Coast, but more why it’s been nearly non-existent in a city of such size and culinary magnitude, rife with gourmands and Italians? It shouldn’t be this hard. Thankfully, times, they are a changin’… and Brooklyn, no surprise, is at the forefront. I’ll have to save Brooklyn coffee favorites for my next visit.

Now that our own long-time standard, Blue Bottle, made it’s way to Brooklyn a few months ago, and Stumptown opened in the Flatiron District (and is one of Manhattan’s best coffee stops), there’s finally a decent cup to be found. But what about local shops? It is interesting that in roaming Manhattan, visiting eight of the most acclaimed coffee spots, only half were actually great. But four is a success compared to past years when the now-defunct East Village Simon Sips was among the finer cups I’d had in NY, and recommendations to favorites like Grey Dog Coffee and Jack’s yielded welcoming neighborhood cafes but mediocre coffee.

Soho’s La Colombe, a Philadelphia-based (via Seattle) coffee company, is a clean, high-ceilinged space with grainy, modern wood and coffee served in Old World tea sets. The appeal of the shop did not cover up the needlessly snooty staff whose cappuccino not only came in an over-sized cup, but was a LATTE, not a cappuccino: milky as heck. Fail.

Birch Coffee’s eclectic exterior

More promising, was an appropriately-sized cappuccino at Ninth Street Espresso (I visited the East Village locale), which claims to be the first specialty coffee house in NY since 2001. The hipster staff were laid back and kind… but somehow there was texture to the drink, and not the cream of an appropriately foamed capp, but more a grainy, thick, slightly off-putting texture. On the right track, but not there.

In alphabetical order, here were the best in preparation and taste out of the eight in my recent explorations. These are the ones most in line with Italian-quality robustness, balanced bitterness, and, when it comes to cappuccinos, proper ratios of milk and espresso with at least decent foam.
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ABRACO, East Village – Locals and Bay Area friends alike, have told me since it’s 2007 opening that Abraco is the one single great cup in Manhattan. I’d agree it’s up there. In a postcard-sized East Village shop, the cappuccinos are of the quality and preparation I’m used to. No surprise that one of Abraco’s founding partners and baristas, Jamie McCormick, lived in the Bay Area 10 years working at Oliveto and, you guessed it, Blue Bottle. Partner and chef, Elizabeth Quijada, also has a Bay Area history, where she met McCormick. They make a beautiful cup.

RBC’s double espresso

BIRCH COFFEE, Flatiron – This quirky, lovable shop inside the funky, beckoning Gershwin Hotel, has a thrift store feel in the upstairs library, free wi-fi, their own fair trade beans, and most importantly, a lovely espresso and strong coffee.

BLUEBIRD COFFEE SHOP, East Village – Though I knew my old NY coffee stomping grounds, Simon Sips, had closed, I inadvertently wandered back to where it was housed to find it had turned into Bluebird, utilizing the same charming, tiny, brick-walled space filled with locals enjoying cozy conversation over coffee. The espresso borders on too bitter, but overall, they do a fine job, are quite friendly and the shop is a welcome addition using Counter Culture coffee.

RBC COFFEE, Tribeca – I trekked from Midtown to Tribeca on a rainy weekday during rush hour commute to this high-ceilinged shop, replete with a shiny, costly Slayer machine. I feared going out of my way would be a letdown, like so many others have been. Thankfully, it was not. In fact, both their espresso and cappuccino are just what that doctor (or coffee lover) ordered.

RBC and Abraco are now my top two coffee recommends (along with the impeccable Stumptown) in Manhattan.

*** Check out the current June 2010 issue of Vogue magazine for Jeffrey Steingarten’s article on coffee, including a few I’ve mentioned here (I recommend his books, too). I read the article after my trip but enjoyed the focus on actual cups of coffee and tasting profiles vs. espresso and other coffee drinks.